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Two accounts of Jesus' birth

Between Matthew and Luke, a striking difference in tone and content.

Orlando R. Barone has taught for the department of theology and religious studies at Villanova University

If we can move past the endless and fruitless arguments about the literal accuracy of the Bible's take on Christmas, there is a richness there that can infuse the holiday with great insight for Christians and an authentic spiritual message for non-Christians.

There are two accounts of the events surrounding Jesus' birth, Matthew's and Luke's. They can both be read at a leisurely pace in 20 minutes. There is a striking difference in tone and content between the two.

Matthew wrote for Jewish Christians sometime after A.D. 70 and is intent on confirming Jesus' legitimate Jewish roots, that Jesus is the law and prophets fulfilled. The opening genealogy is artificial and is designed to show Jesus' kinship with father Abraham and thus with the entire Hebrew event. The rest is a subdued, ominous, edgy, sometimes tragic narration.

Jesus is born miraculously, of a virgin, also a fulfillment of prophecy, not to mention a major one-up on the Roman emperor, whose birth was also scored as pretty special. God's hand in all this is made obvious by Matthew's focus on the troubled Joseph, Mary's fiancé, who had a mind to divorce the pregnant girl until God's messenger (angel) told him to relax. Literally, not to be afraid.

Matthew is also aware that, in his own time, the gospel was spreading from Jew to gentile. Magi, mystic star watchers who travel from the East, reflect this development. Evil Herod represents the break between Christianity and Judaism. The king forces young Jesus to a gentile land while innocent Hebrew children shed their blood. If Christmas were based totally on what Matthew wrote, it would be a somber holiday indeed.

Luke pens a very different narrative. He is probably writing for gentile Christians, and places less focus on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

A lover of contrasts, Luke sets Jesus' miraculous conception and birth against those of John the Baptist. There is mother Mary the believer and father Zechariah the doubter. Jesus' nativity, too, unfolds in a panoply of contrasts: singing angels, lowly shepherds; the census decree of the mighty Caesar, the humble birth in a manger. The quiet magnificence of Luke's telling is a tribute to his literary genius and, for believers, God's inspiration.

Unlike Matthew, Luke's account of the early days of Jesus fairly bursts with the hope, power, and glory of God's advancing kingdom. There are fully four resounding hymns of joy in Luke's Christmas story; no trace of song in Matthew. Both evangelists feature heavenly angels, but the angels issue warnings in Matthew; in Luke they ringingly announce glorious things to come and sing hosanna. The stress and panic in Matthew's Joseph give way to the expectant ecstasy of the young virgin in Luke.

It is, finally, Luke who gives voice to the most tender moment in Christian history, when insignificant sheepherders paid silent homage to a newborn, helpless and divine, asleep in an animal's feeding crib. Told as it has never been told before or since, it is the interface of the human and the godly, omnipotence at rest within an infant's heart. Glory to God; peace to his people.